I looked at the blue sky and white clouds above us, avoiding the view of the bottomless Chasm and of the village far below us. We had already traveled a fair distance from our house. Mom was a very quick climber. Waterfalls rumbled all around us, cascading into the vast abyss below us.
"Mom... do you think I can make my own wings?" I asked.
"No, Juni... wings are for boys," she replied, the tone of her voice sharp.
"But what if I make them myself?" I insisted.
"You ask such strange things. Sometimes I think you aren't my spawn," she muttered.
"Mom, I'm definitely your spawn," I insisted, stumbling over my words. My pronunciation was horrid.
“You’re so… different,” she mulled. “It is concerning.”
"I... I just lost a little bit of myself in the land of the dead, that's all," I said.
"Thinking about your inadequacies... is painful for me," she sighed. "I feel ashamed that my daughter... that you... do not truly know what's right or wrong... do not truly know me as I knew my mother."
I thought about how well other mothers and daughters acted at the meeting place, how they seemed to understand each other without speaking almost instantaneously. I realized how she was feeling and what she had been going through for months now. I wasn't like the others. I was an alien being that was masquerading as her daughter. This fact was obviously painful to her.
I was akin to a cuckoo finch. I recalled reading about the little brood parasite birds that laid their eggs in other species' nests and leaving those birds to do the hard work of raising their offspring. I had to explain my aberrancy to my mother so that she would not suffer as much because of me.
"The way I... behave. It's normal. Dying and coming back to life is a requirement for being a true cendai," I explained. "Without seeing the still forest at the edge between life and death, magic cannot be performed. I know that I'm different, mom... I am not like you. I know what you're feeling, but please bear with me. When I'm high cendai I'll be able to make my own um… magic bug like the one Eunice has and maybe I'll find the lost part of myself and then I'll be as smart as you. Just put up with my... forgetfulness, stupid questions and unique-ness until then, okay?"
"Hrm... that makes sense... I suppose," she muttered with another deep sigh. "You were dead for many heartbeats."
"Don't worry mom, it's all part of being a cendai!" I assured her, hugging her neck. The gesture and my lies seemed to relax her. "When I know magic, I'll help you a lot more, I promise!"
"Really?" She asked. "You won't abandon me when you're of age?"
"Of course not, mom! I love you!" I said, hugging her harder. "You're the best. Please teach me everything you know and don't hold back. Please don't be mad at me anymore. Trust in me. Help me learn. It will be tough because I'm not like the others.... But, absolutely everything you do now will help me become a better cendai in the future, will help strengthen our family and strengthen our tribe!"
"I… I'll try to be more understanding," she replied. "I... love you too, my Juni."
"Thank you, mom."
She resumed her climb. After a few minutes of silence I decided to strike the metaphorical iron while it was hot.
"Mom..." I began. "How do the men make the glider wings? Where do they get the giant bug wings and the parts that bind them to their arms?"
"To become a flying hunter... a boy goes through the ritual of ascension to manhood. During it he must kill a Bonulich beetle and rip out its wings," she said, her voice trembling ever so slightly.
"Um, what if I kill this beetle too?" I inquired. "With a bow?"
"It will not work, Juni. The Bonulich beetle has very thick armor. Your dad told me of the ritual. The entire tribe agitates and tires the beetle out for several days, to a point where it can no longer fly. Once it is exhausted, the men blind it with poisoned arrows, hurt it so that the chosen boy of age can overcome it. Alone, a single chimera cannot possibly defeat the Bonulich beetle."
"But what if I do?" I insisted. "What if I kill one myself and take its wings?"
"Then your shoulders won't be strong enough to support the wings, Juni. Girls do not fly," she insisted.
"What if I train my arms?" I asked. "Make my shoulders stronger?"
"Juni." Mom shook her head. "Juni... Please don't try something so insane. You will die. It cannot be done alone."
"Even if you somehow miraculously succeed at killing a Bonulich... nobody will believe you. A lead hunter or even your dad will simply take your wings away to keep you from hurting yourself and all of it will be for naught. Men protect the girls. Even now as I am climbing, a young hunter watches us from the sky, ready to swoop down and defend us if we need aid."
I glanced up at the sky above us. There was a vague dot there, a young hunter seemingly circling us. Damn it! I didn't even notice his presence.
I sighed. Stupid primitive patriarchy. Stupid cultural norms. There had to be a way to break these idiotic rules... wait a minute. What if I made a glider that didn't use magic beetle wings? What if I made a parachute? A paraglider!
"What if I fly without... Bonulich beetle wings?"
The question seemed to break mom. She paused her climb.
"Do you mean… fall?" She asked. "Bonulich wings catch currents of the skyriver itself. Nothing else will lift an adult chimera or carry them upwards with ease."
"No... what if I figure out a way to fly... using other materials?" I said.
"Impossible," she muttered. "You will get hurt. Please stop talking nonsense. You're making my head hurt."
I shut my mouth. Being creative in a primitive and extremely conservative society was hard. Maybe I could just show her a basic parachute or something to convince her? I had taken many paragliding classes in Georgia by the Black Sea from an Urbex colleague of mine, so I knew exactly how the parafoil was shaped and how it functioned. If only I could find... materials with which I could create something akin to a paraglider, then I'd be set!
I kept quiet, recalling the design of a paraglider, occasionally glancing down at the Chasm. I had to get used to the damn thing, and had to stop being afraid of it! I wasn't afraid of paragliding high above the Black Sea! I stared the Chasm down, trying not to panic. The view wobbled in my eyes.
Mom's climb ended at a flat platform. She stepped onto it and let me out of the backpack. When I saw her face there were streaks of tears on it.
"I'm sorry, mom," I apologized. "I was just... thinking like a cendai. Don't mind me."
"That's fine, love," she said, wiping the tears from her face. "Come help me collect kimyajzty."
I tried to recall what “kimyajzty” were supposed to be as I looked over the stone outcropping. A few waterfalls were cascading from overhead, forming a little pool in the middle of the platform. The water flowed out of the pool forming a few brooks which in turn came down as waterfalls from the platform itself. Bushes covered in orange berries sprouted around the pool. Ah! Kimyajzty were the orange berries growing on the three-leaf clover bushes.
"Mom, I didn't get a chance to wash up last night or this morning," I complained, feeling that my scalp was dry and itchy.
Instead of saying anything she simply pointed at the waterfall. I trudged into the water with a sigh. The water closer to the waterfall was bone-chilling, but the pool itself was of tolerable temperature.
I washed off the sweat and the dry blood of the nightcrawler off my face. I emerged from the water wishing for a towel. No towel was to be had.
My stomach growled, I was very hungry. For a brief moment I daydreamed about some perogi. Alas, delicious deep fried dumplings were a whole other universe away and not on the local menu. The berries near the water were too tempting to ignore. I stuffed my face full of kim-berries as I had labeled them. They tasted somewhat like sour blueberries and weren't very ripe.
I sputtered angrily. I was far too used to quality Ukrainian food. I rated the kim-berries 2/10. My grandfather's garden featured a vast variety of cherries, peaches and apples, numerous fruit and vegetables meticulously cultivated over generations of people. Waterfall berries simply couldn't compare.
Mom simply shook her head at my antics, collecting kim-berries into her pouch. Hunger won over and I descended upon the berries with greater vigor making frowning faces as I chewed them.
"Heya!" A young voice resonated from the side, interrupting my breakfast. I turned. Another girl was standing there. She had silver-tinted, glittering skin, silver-blue eyes and her hair looked like white quartz crystals. She was slightly shorter than me, so I presumed that she was around my age.
The little newcomer was wearing a dark leather vest and skirt, a crystal necklace to match her hair and a pair of leather wrist bracelets. She looked adorable if a bit haggard. She had a determined expression on her face, as if she was a grown adult on serious business.
An older copy of her, who was most likely her mother, silently climbed up to the platform.
"Hi," I said, blushing. I probably looked like a feral child, with red berry juice dripping all over me.
"I'm Alessi," the young chimera introduced herself. "You're Juni, right?"
"Yeah," I nodded. "How do you know my name?"
"You were talking to the high-cendai at the meeting grove yesterday," she said. "I… overheard what she said."
"Hrmm?" I wiped berries from my face.
"Do… you want to be friends?" She asked, after a pause, suddenly looking a bit shy.
"Sure!" I smiled, looking at her. Making friends with a future shaman early on was a clever decision on her part.
"Don't waste time, Juni." An empty basket-pouch thrown by mom landed on me. I pulled the mesh-woven bag off my head and started to gather berries with a sigh.
Alessi joined in on the berry-gathering process. She acquired her own folded basket from her mother's backpack.
"Soooo... why haven't I seen you at the grove before?" she asked.
"Part of being a young cedai in training," I explained my absence from the social circle. I now knew that mom was most likely too embarrassed to bring me there earlier because of how poorly I talked in the local dialect.
"...you already started training?" The blonde chimera girl blinked.
"Yep," I nodded. "All part of being a cendai."
She squinted at me, probably not believing me.
"Check this out," I said, lifting my hand. I retracted my little claws, making my nails look human.
"Oh wow," she gasped.
Yep, children were easy to impress. But then again... I wasn't sure how her ancestral memory was affecting her. Maybe she was just humoring me.
"I've never seen someone our age do that!" She commented, looking at my nails with great curiosity. "How?"
"Magic," I explained nothing at all. "So, how much of my conversation with my Master did you hear?"
"Just the last part about you studying magic from Eunice," she said.
Ah, so she had overheard the end of my conversation with the shaman.
"I came to you... because I need help," Alessi lowered her eyes. "My dad had not returned from a hunt this winter. A snowpiercer broke his wings."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said.
"It's okay," she shrugged, her eyes glittering with unshed tears. "He was a brave hunter. It happens. The Chasm gives and takes life."
I felt a pang of anger. It was true that the monsters of the Chasm took lives... but things didn't have to be this way. Not if I could make a difference. I pondered how I could proceed.
"How can I help you?" I asked.
"After dad died, mom shattered," the young chimera explained, pointing at her mother. "She doesn't eat or sleep much. She doesn't talk either. I didn't really know him like she did, so it didn't affect me. I have to tell her exactly what to do, otherwise she does nothing at all. I told her to follow your mom. I wanted to talk to you."
I nodded, glancing at Alessi's mother. Now that she was closer I noticed that she looked rather skinny, worn out. She wasn't talking to my mom, simply mechanically, expressionlessly collecting berries, her eyes looking past her task, focused on nothing at all.
"Eunice said that she can't help my mom wake up, as it's her mind that's broken, not her soul," Alessi said with a sniff. "But every cendai is... different. I remember that much. Some are better at healing, others are better at killing. I don't expect you to help me today, or tomorrow... but maybe someday... when you learn some healing songs... you could... maybe practice them on my mom?"
I knew what she wanted then. She came to me because she thought that I could someday cure her mom's catatonic depression. Alas, I had no way to cure depression. I had a degree in History and Sociology, not Psychiatry. I pondered what I could do for her.
"Alessi, do you want to learn magic?" I asked.
"W-what?" She blinked.
"Learn magic," I repeated. "Yourself."
"But... I haven't seen the Still Forest... I... never died and came back to life," she muttered, shaking her head. "I'm not worthy of being a cendai."
"I can try teaching you what I learn," I said. "I don't think that dying horribly is a requirement to do magic."
"R-really?" Alessi gasped.
"If you want to help your mom, you'll have to break the rules," I whispered conspiratorially. "Are you willing to break the rules, Alessi? Are you willing to learn how to fly?"
"To fly? But that's for..." she muttered.
"For everyone," I interrupted her. "When I'm high-cendai, I will teach everyone how to fly. I want to teach everyone magic."
"E-everyone?" she stammered, looking at me with wide open eyes.
I nodded. "If everyone knew magic and could fly... then our tribe would be a lot stronger. A stronger tribe would make sure that less of us die hunting. So... are you in?"
"Girls can't fly..." She mulled.
"I can do it," I insisted. "I will do it."
Alessi bit her lip, not sure what to make of my declarations.
"You seem so confident…" She said after a deep pause. "I don't think that it's possible… but… I'll help you regardless. I'll break the rules if that's what it takes to help my mom."
I looked at my first friend in this world. She looked akin to a brave, little white kitten, her big silver-blue eyes filled with sadness, determination and... hope. The Chasm was a very dangerous place. Whatever evolutionary trait had caused the emergence of Engrams that passed essential memories from parent to child, it was extremely effective in making kids like Alessi grow up quickly.
"Your mom is lucky to have you," I said with a soft smile.
"You are... very different," she said. "The others think that you will fail the trials of being our cendai. They chatter that the Chasm will take your life soon."
I frowned. Dissent was already forming in the masses against my future position as local shaman and I didn't even know about it.
"What do you think?" I asked.
"I was hoping that you're different enough to help my mom," she muttered. "I didn't expect you to offer to teach me magic."
"I'll teach you magic, but you need to promise me one thing," I offered.
"What?" She asked.
"Promise me that you won't tell anyone about this," I said. "That you'll keep whatever I teach you to yourself, a secret."
"I understand." She nodded. "I promise."
"Follow me to my house," I said. "Tonight... we're going to hunt a nightcrawler."
"To hunt?! A nightcrawler?!" She gasped. I was blowing her mind with every new sentence out of my mouth.
She gulped, her hands trembling.
"Don't worry," I said. "We're going to do it in a completely new way. We won't get hurt, I promise."
Alessi didn't seem convinced.
Support "The Armorer and the Infinite Dungeon [Progression Litrpg]"
- Archbishop of Captania and sovereign territories
I was born in the year 1984, in the 4th most polluted city of Soviet Union.
On April 11/1997 fate has given me an unexpected twist and by means of aerial transportation I was dislocated 5555 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to Ontario, Canada, wherein I currently preside in an 1890 cathedral and partake in writing and drawing things.